Change of plans!
We landed in Kigali last week. We initially planned to spend 3 months in Nairobi but ended up shortening our stay. “ Who? What? When? How? Why? ” I am laying out the behind-the-scenes story below…
I was very excited about coming back to Nairobi .. and the city I found was very different from the one that was imprinted in my memories! I discovered Kenya 27 years ago, when my two sisters, my parents, and I moved there. For 4 years, we lived the “expats life” with all its privileges: a home in a gorgeous lush private residence, smooth education at the French school, and a car with a driver. Life was beautiful: I was spending most of my weekends playing in big gardens, exploring the bush in 4x4, or celebrating my friends' birthday around the pool.
The experience I had last month was radically different! First of all, Nairobi has changed a lot: the city is bigger, denser, faster, and much more chaotic. Then, I had the opportunity to discover areas of the city that I never walked nor drove through before - such as the substandard slums of Kibera and Mathare. But above all, I experienced this city as an independent adult, out of the comfort and cocoon of my childhood. I found the city very difficult to access: walking was barely an option, preventing us from unexpected yet enriching encounters, and making it hard to tame its neighborhoods. We spent almost a month in isolation #solitude. I tried to reconnect with friends from my childhood but horrendous traffic jams and long distances were not helping; the city is very spread out and it takes 1h to travel 15km during peak hours.
Ladies and laughter in Nairobi.
Dressed modestly in niqab head covers, they reach to the ceiling, stretch their arms to their toes, and balance carefully on one foot. Together, they practice breathing, meditation, and stretching - as carefully instructed by Charlotte.
They are a group of 15 Somali refugee women coming together every Monday morning to develop their capacity to look after themselves and eventually their community. These refugees who once fled Somalia to Kenya out of fear of al-Shabaab violence are still living in constant fear of insecurity and abuse. Life in Eastleigh - one of Nairobi's most vibrant districts and home to many Somali and Ethiopian refugees - is not conducive to personal and social well-being. These women lack access to quality healthcare services, education, market, and therefore to meaningful livelihoods. Most of them were victims of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in one of the most extreme forms and have now to contend with increased sexual and gender-based violence (e.g. gang rapes).
The entrepreneurship, leadership, and wellbeing program in which they partake since March 2018 (as initiated by Holly Ritchie - co-founder of Thrive for Change) breaks barriers in conservative Somali society, where there are strict gender roles, including surrounding access to athletics programs. Such a project opens up the dialogue around the power of women’s groups, particularly in more fragile contexts, in building women’s capacity and skills to become society contributors (not just household contributors) and community decision-makers and leaders.
It was a privilege to work with Holly Ritchie - a change agent in Nairobi’s low income areas and refugee communities - where she champions for the wellbeing and empowerment of women. Over the course of June - where we celebrated both world refugee day (June 20th) and world yoga day (June 21th) - Charlotte facilitated mind-body wellbeing workshops and equipped the 15 women with simple yet effective tools to continue their practice at home and spread it within their community.
On the topic of refugees, one documentary worth checking out: “Human Flow” (by Ai Wei Wei). Long and slow in parts, but deeply moving and ultimately very human in all senses.
Falling back on our two feet.
We decided to shorten our stay in Nairobi since we did not manage to bring to life enough relevant projects. Beyond our great collaboration with Thrive for Change, nothing panned out from all the other leads and conversations, and some even gave us the feeling that we were "forcing things". Did we lack perseverance? Was our service not adapted to the needs of this audience? We have learned a few lessons from this experience which we intend to bear in mind in the future.
First, our service must blend with the local culture. Obvious - isn’t it? - but putting into practice is more delicate. Yoga is a wellness practice that involves body and mind. Yoga is not a religion, however any reference to mindfulness (through breathing and meditation in particular) is very quickly associated with religious practices or even witchcraft! The exercises we offer may be perceived by some as illegitimate or even malefic because they are outside the scope of their religion. This cultural integration of yoga can be done in several ways such as:
Adapting our language: recently, we have been replacing the term "yoga" by "postures and breathing" in order to eliminate any religious connotation.
Changing the way we teach: we double down our efforts to train or onboard a yoga teacher from the same community as the participants to run the program. Thus, students can better identify themselves with the teacher.
Again, we find that money plays an important role in the delivery of any service. Until now, we have been offering to develop and facilitate most of our programs on a voluntary basis. As a result, none of the organizations we contacted refused to work with us. A blessing as much as a curse because the absence of remuneration can be the source of opportunism, thus pulling our interlocutors away from the most important question: is our program really relevant for their beneficiaries?
Arts, Yoga, Football : same battle.
Our time in Nairobi was not completely useless! This challenging month still allowed us to make enriching encounters and discover innovative projects.
Philip, Jeff, Erik, and Carmen from KiCA touched me with their kindness and sense of humor. They support Kibera's artistic community by providing them with a platform to harness and showcase their talents. In spite of their limited resources, they realize incredible projects.
The community class of Africa Yoga Project was the most joyful class I ever attended! We moved with the hundred or so participants under Catherine Njeri's straightforward instructions and to the Afrobeat rhythms of the live DJ! A beautiful way to remind us that yoga should not be taken too seriously :)
Bouncing back in the country of a thousand hills.
The decision to leave Nairobi was not an easy one. Charlotte and I both felt we were abandoning the seeds we planted - a feeling of having a moral debt towards the few beneficiaries we had briefly introduced to the practice. At the end of the day, the key question was: will we be able to accomplish our mission by staying in Nairobi for another two months? After careful consideration, the answer seemed to be negative.
We made the decision to move to Kigali for 2 reasons: we had the opportunity to work on very interesting projects with Azahar Foundation and the city of Kigali seemed sufficiently accessible to have an impact in 2 months.
Senior Jivamukti Yoga teacher and mentor Yogeswari founded Azahar Foundation to not only offer access to yoga to those who don’t have the means but also to use the ethical principles of yoga to contribute towards peace-building. In Rwanda, Azahar offers yoga classes to vulnerable youth and orphans (Agahozo Shalom), rural women artisans (Indego Africa), and survivors of the genocide (Imbuto Foundation). The activity went on a year-long hiatus because of lack of yoga teachers and a permanent project coordinator. We will use our 2 months on the ground to meet the beneficiaries of each partner NGO, teach thematic workshops within each organization, identify candidates for yoga teacher training, update the curriculum of their program, and support Azahar in its development.
See you soon for new adventures,